1717: Three spared en route to Tyburn, thanks to Jack Ketch’s debts

Add comment November 6th, 2017 Headsman

From the London Weekly Journal or Saturday’s Post, Nov. 9, 1717:

On Wednesday we had a very odd Accident happen’d upon Occasion of the ordinary Execution of Criminals; the Number to be hang’d was five, according to the Dead Warrant, but two of these had obtain’d a respite of Execution, the other three were put into the Cart and carry’d to the Place of Execution.

The Person they call the Finisher of the Law, alias the Hangman, and who, for the common Understanding inherits the Name of Jack Ketch, going before the Cart on Foot, in order to be ready at the Place, was arrested in Holborn by three Bayliffs or Officers, on a Sheriffs Warrant for Debts, and was carry’d away.

However, after some Time he got out of their Hands, but soon fell into worse Company; for the Mob got him into their Clutches, and whether he had given them Occasion or no, we know not, but no Pick-Pocket was ever used worse by them; for if all we hear is true, they left him with little Life in him.

In the mean Time the Prisoners came to the Place of Execution; but no Hangman could be found to do them the usual last Offices of Kindness. The Under-Sheriff, it is said, offered very generously to several Persons to officiate, but none could be found. Mr. Ordinary, we hear, might have had the Compliment, but did not think fit to say he would accept it if it had been offer’d.

One bold Fellow, being half inclin’d, his Comrade prompted him earnestly, Do Jack, says his Brother Tom, thou hast not earn’d a Penny in an honest Way a great While.

No, says Jack; da___e, not I, for I deserve it as much as any of them; but do you do it your self, Tom, you know it will be your Turn quickly, and Jack Ketch shall use you the better for it.

But in short, neither Jack nor Tom would do it, and the poor Wretches, tho’ they waited in the Cold a great While, were not willing to do it for themselves; and so the Sheriff’s Officers were fain to bring them back again to Newgate, where it is said they must lie till Jack Ketch recovers of his Suffocation in the Horse-Pond, and is in Condition for his honest Employment.

The prisoners in question all had their sentences commuted.

The hangman, William Marvell — who had obtained the position because his predecessor was also clapped in debtors’ prison — likewise lost the executioner’s gig thanks to the embarrassing arrest. Too reviled thereafter to find honest work he wound up being sentenced to convict transportation for shoplifting in 1719.

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1922: Ali Kemal

1 comment November 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Anglophile Turkish politician Ali Kemal (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was lynched by a nationalist mob at Izmit during the Turkish War of Independence.

Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.

Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetret anticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.

Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)

It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.

He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:

Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.

He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”

Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.

Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.

After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.

The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.

* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.

Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.

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1863: James Murphy, after a reunion

Add comment November 6th, 2015 Headsman

On November 6, 1863, Old Geelong Gaol (op. cit.) hosted the hanging of James Murphy.

This horse thief, having been put to some light piece of penal servitude cleaning up the Warrnambool courthouse, noticed his minder kneeling over the fireplace and bashed that constable’s head with a three-point mason’s hammer.

Murphy made good his escape … for two days. He paid for those meager hours of harrowed liberty with his neck: a remarkable occasion, for it was noted that

[t]he executioner was a man sent down from Melbourne for the purpose, and a rather affecting scene took place when he was first introduced to his victim. It ap- peared the condemned man and he had been intimate friends in Tasmania, and as soon as he recognised him the tears began to roll down at the idea of his having to carry out the grim sentence of the law upon his old mate. He soon recovered his composure, however, and got through the remainder of his thankless office creditably.

The death mask taken from Murphy is still exhibited, and a display at the Old Gaol purports to re-create Murphy’s hanging. (His was the first of only two executions to take place within the gaol’s walls.)

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1964: Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo

2 comments November 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, anti-apartheid fighters Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo went to the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison — the first three members of the African National Congress’s military arm to be executed by apartheid South Africa.

In 1960, on the 21st of March — a date still kept as South Africa’s Human Rights Day, and worldwide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — white police gunned down 69 black civilians protesting the color line.

After the Sharpeville Massacre the struggle over racial apartheid in South Africa escalated to a much more violent plane.

Confrontations throughout South Africa following Sharpeville led the white government to declare a state of emergency and begin rounding up thousands of regime opponents. Pretoria also immediately outlaws the leading black resistance organizations, the Pan Africanist Congress and the African National Congress.

Driven underground, both PAC and ANC spun off military wings in 1961 to meet force with force.

We have already visited the “Langa Six”, members of the PAC’s Poqo.

Shortly thereafter, on December 16, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” in Zulu, but better known simply as “MK”) announced its advent with placards in city streets.

The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.

MK conducted its first dynamite attacks that very evening in Port Elizabeth; over the ensuing 18 months, it carried out more than 200 bombings and other acts of sabotage against the facilities of the apartheid state: train tracks, power stations, telephone wires, offices.

A security crackdown naturally ensued.* By 1963, the white government had managed to expose and arrest three-quarters of MK’s regional Eastern Cape High Command. Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Khayingo, and Zinakile Mkaba were all swiftly condemned on multiple counts of sabotage plus one of murdering a police informant. International appeals for clemency fell on deaf ears; one fellow-traveler later remembered the men taking leave of their fellow-prisoners in a haunting song.**

“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near … It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards. And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga’s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions. Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section.

* It was during this crackdown that future president Nelson Mandela was rolled up. Mandela had helped to found MK.

** According to The Road to Democracy in South Africa, 1960-1970, the song was Mini’s own composition titled “Pasop — nants’in-dod’inyama, Verwoerd” (“Watch out, here is the African man, Verwoerd!”). If it is available online, I have not been able to find it.

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1918: Roman Malinovsky, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy

Add comment November 6th, 2013 Headsman

In the early morning hours this date in 1918, Roman Malinovsky was shot in the Kremlin on the verdict of his trial the previous day.

In the years before the Russian Revolution Malinovsky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a steelworker who was actually a Bolshevik revolutionary, who was actually an Okhrana agent codenamed “Tailor”.

After a stint in the army in the first years of the 20th century, the Polish Catholic Malinovsky went to work as a lathe operator in a St. Petersburg factory, in one of the militant pockets of Russia’s small urban proletariat.

Malinovsky proved a gifted labor organizer — enough that under the Stolypin crackdown, he was arrested in 1909 and expelled from St. Petersburg. Then he was arrested in 1910 in Moscow.

No later than this point, though possibly even before it, he was recruited by tsarist Russia’s secret police. Now Malinovsky’s considerable energies were turned to spying on the communists, and to deepening mistrust between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “The whole purpose of my direction [to Malinovsky] is summed up in this: to give no possibility of the Party’s uniting,” the police director Beletsky later explained.

Malinovsky was an adroit mole.

He got himself elected to the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and ingratiated himself with Lenin so thoroughly that when Malinovsky was openly accused of spying for the Okhrana in 1913, Lenin came to his defense.

Malinovsky’s proximity to Lenin enabled him to cc the police on the latter’s correspondence, but for posterity the mystery is on the other side of the relationship. Was Lenin in denial? Or did he already know that Malinovsky was a spy?

The double games being played around Malinovsky fade into a fog in the 1910s. The Okhrana mysteriously forced Malinovsky to resign from the state Duma — another powerful seat he had obtained — which was such a grievous loss for the Bolsheviks that it further multiplied the suspicions of his leftist comrades. Did the Okhrana take this seemingly counterproductive step because Malinovsky was compromised as a spy, or was this just a change of policy? When Malinovsky was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War I, his agitations among fellow-POWs earned Lenin’s admiration. Was this sincere conviction after all, or a maneuver?

Accounts of associates paint Lenin as horribly torn on the accusations against a man whom Lenin plainly admired, even rationalizing that Malinovsky’s organizational talents on behalf of the movement had still outweighed the injury he might have done it by spying.

Nor was this merely a personal consideration, since accusations against Malinovsky — an uncompromising Bolshevik in his party persona, further to the cause of preventing intra-party reconciliation — had emerged earliest from Mensheviks. Their eventual vindication on this matter was an obvious irritant to Lenin, and even late in the war years Lenin downplayed the spying charges.

Most mysteriously of all — at least in retrospect — Malinovsky voluntarily returned to post-Revolution Moscow knowing that his role as an informant had been definitively exposed in Russian newspapers following a sack of the Okhrana offices and its revealing files. It was to “wash away the sins of his life with blood,” he told his interrogators, agents of the new secret police — the Cheka. Or was it that he thought he had, via Lenin (who had even sent clothes to the disgraced Malinovsky’s POW camp) an angle on rehabilitation?

Maybe in the end Malinovsky was the victim of his own con. Ralph Carter Elwood’s biography suggests that Malinovsky took Lenin’s surprisingly congenial behavior to mean that he had been forgiven since the fact could no longer be denied … when it might really have meant that Lenin was in denial about the fact itself, almost to to the last. “The last” being, in this case, the courtroom* of Nov. 5 which Lenin himself attended. Malinovsky defended himself for hours, but admitted all; if he anticipated clemency, he did not receive any more of it than the few hours necessary to put his affairs in order.

More tantalizing still, though well into the realm of speculation, is the idea that Lenin did indeed understand what Malinovsky was up to, but wanted to keep the door closed on espionage and counter-espionage vis-a-vis the tsarist police for fear of disgracing old Bolshevik revolutionaries with compromised pasts who had now become men of state. Stalin himself might have been in this same boat, perhaps making this moment yet another missed opportunity to pre-empt the terrifying era yet to come.

“I couldn’t see through that scoundrel Malinovsky,” Lenin later told Gorky, a sentiment we might today echo in retrospect. “It was a very fishy affair, that Malinovsky business.”

* His prosecutor was former comrade Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko ultimately died in 1938; you may well guess how.

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1944: Boy Ecury, Aruban Dutch Resistance hero

Add comment November 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Dutch Resistance hero Boy Ecury was shot by the occupying Germans.

Ecury English Wikipedia entry | Dutch)

Ecury grew up in Oranjestad, capital of the Dutch-controlled Caribbean island of Aruba, but had packed off to the Netherlands to finish school by the time World War II broke out. He spent the early Forties with a Resistance group sabotaging German assets and the like.

This insurgent clique eventually got rolled up, and Boy Ecury was arrested on November 5, 1944. He had only that one night to enjoy the legendary hospitality of the occupiers before he and several others of his group were shot the next day.

The young martyr’s body was repatriated to Aruba after the war and buried with honors; a public memorial still stands to him in Oranjestad.

Boy’s sister, the venerable poet Nydia Ecury, just passed away earlier this year.

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1600: Ishida Mitsunari, Konishi Yukinaga and Ankokuji Ekei for the Tokugawa Shogunate

1 comment November 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1600, the emergent Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded three men as rebels in Kyoto after they lost one of the pivotal battles in Japanese history.

The Battle of Sekigahara, on Oct. 21 of that same year, had pitted the shogunate’s founder Tokugawa Ieyasu against a coalition known as the Western Army.

This was the culmination of Japan’s bloody process of national unification.

The preceding ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had more or less unified Japan under central authority to end a century of civil war. But when Hideyoshi shuffled off leaving a five-year-old heir, a squabbling coterie of regents began elbowing for position.

The political scene eventually crystallized into one of those regents — the said Tokugawa Ieyasu — against all the others. Give yourself a gold star if you guessed that the guys who had their heads lopped off by the Tokugawa Shogunate played for the “all others” team.

Ishida Mitsunari

Ishida Mitsunari, a daimyo who served the late national unifier Hideyoshi, became the focal point of the opposition to Ieyasu.*

Mitsunari failed in a 1599 assassination bid on Ieyasu, and so the two came to outright warfare the following year — a war that Ieyasu economically won by routing Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara.

That, in turn, cleared the way for Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually to take the title of shogun and found his eponymous dynasty — a dynasty whose intellectuals circled that decisive battle as the keystone in the arch.

“Evildoers and bandits were vanquished and the entire realm submitted to Lord Ieyasu, praising the establishment of peace and extolling his martial virtue. That this glorious era that he founded may continue for ten thousands upon ten thousands of generations, coeval with heaven and earth!”

-Hayashi Gaho, a little on the optimistic side

Captured after Sekigahara, the “evildoer” Mitsunari was beheaded this date alongside two of his allies: a Christian convert named Konishi Yukinaga, and Ankokuji Ekei of the powerful Mori clan.

* Ishida Mitsunari wasn’t one of the regents; rather, the anti-Ieyasu regents ended up adhering to him.

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1793: Philippe Egalite, hoisted on his own petard

6 comments November 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philippe Egalite was hoisted on his own petard.

To hoist with one’s own petard actually has an older derivation, dating to siege warfare engineers whose primitive bombs, petards, were liable to detonate unexpectedly and gave their makers a “hoist.”

Still, the phrase sounds like something that ought to come right out of the French Revolution, redolent (as are petards themselves: the explosive word is from the French “to fart”) of angry mobs hoisting aristocrats, as was their wont, up on pikestaffs and lampposts and … petards. Whatever those are.

Philippe Egalite — the Duke of Orleans, as he was known for most of his life — was such an aristocrat: in fact he was royalty, the First Prince of the Blood and a cousin to Louis XVI.

And he was the member of the royal house who most vibed on the revolutionary spirit of the times, literally bankrolling the Jacobins before the Revolution. Hilary Mantel* notes that Orleans made the Palais Royal “into a sort of demagogue’s shopping centre — Paris’s most volatile public space, crammed with cafés and bookshops, a gathering place for the disaffected. In July 1789, three days of orchestrated violence began there, and culminated in the taking of the Bastille.”

Now that is a petard.

Philippe’s class-traitor politics obviously exposed him to the wrath of the monarchists — a particular irony since the man’s son Louis-Philippe, was France’s last king from 1830 to 1848 — but as usual in Paris during the Terror, it was the the Revolution devouring its children that did him in.

Despite taking up during the Revolution the very Republican name Egalite by which we know him, and despite Egalite‘s vote in the Convention in favor of guillotining Louis XVI (this is sometimes described with more melodrama than accuracy as the “decisive” vote), and despite his many years’ prior revolutionary sympathy, the Duke of Orleans was rounded up with the rest of the available Bourbons when the French General Dumouriez‘s spring 1793 defection prompted a panicky revolutionary purge in Paris. Philippe’s own son, the future king, had gone over with Dumouriez to the Austrians.

Rosebud

The Duc d’Orleans employed Choderlos de Laclos, author of the notoriously delicious Dangerous Liaisons.

As an individual citizen turned politician turned guillotinee, Egalite doesn’t much stand out in those perilous years: one more vulnerable Convention delegate outmaneuvered by Robespierre et al.

As the Daddy Warbucks of the Rights of Man, however, Egalite was a titanic figure for his contemporaries. Not many held him in high personal esteem, but movements need moneybags, and the Prince of the Blood bankrolled his from the bottomless revenues he earned on estates that would dwarf entire departements.

The Duke of Orleans and those around him, according to George Armstrong Kelly in “The Machine of the Duc D’Orléans and the New Politics” (The Journal of Modern History, Dec. 1979)

invented something novel in the history of French politics: the massive use of wealth, research, and propaganda** for the purpose of forming public opinion and swaying public policy. No doubt there are analogues among the Romans and the eighteenth-century English; but here we are almost reminded of the Rockefellers and Kennedys.

Orleans was accused of generating all this mayhem to make his own bid for the throne; those accusations may even hold a bit of truth. Such machinations remain for the conspiratorial among posterity a shadow-play upon the wall; one is left to guess at their potential dimensions from shreds of evidence and the vying vituperations of various contemporary revolutionary factions.

But if extant, such schemes were fatally compromised by the mediocrity of the figurehead who lost his head this day. Though a revolutionary in his philosophy, he was still a doughy Bourbon scion in his soul, and heir to the many shortcomings that characterized that dynasty in its decadence.

Dissolute in the enjoyment of privilege; irresolute in the conquest of power; blithely rearing wolves to his own destruction. That was some petard.


Philippe Egalite and his onetime lover Grace Elliott are the titular characters of the 2001 Eric Rohmer movie The Lady and the Duke.

* Hilary Mantel is the same author who penned the acclaimed historical novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell.

** Kelly claims that Egalite funded Marat.

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2003: Four for the oil of Chad

1 comment November 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2003, seven Chadians were shot in the capital of N’Djamena, with an eighth in the eastern city of Abeche. (A ninth would be executed three days later.)

Chad’s first known judicial executions since 1991 came as a shock to observers; the country had publicly mooted death penalty abolition earlier that very year.

It also seems to have come as a shock for its subjects.

Four of those executed this date — the four that concern us here — were ranking power-brokers in President Idriss Deby’s regime convicted of bumping off the head of the Chad Petroleum Company, one Sheik Ibn Oumar Idriss Youssouf.

Mahamat Adam Issa, Adouma Ali Ahmat, Abderamane Hamid Haroun and Moubarack Bakhit Abderamane had been condemned on Oct. 25, just a month after the Sheikh was assassinated outside the Foreign Ministry. Less than two weeks later, the perps were shot when Deby denied them clemency even with their Supreme Court appeal still pending (pdf). (The Chadian judiciary seems a rickety thing (pdf).)

The murder, for its part, came just a month after Chad christened a $3.7 billion pipeline project.

It’s often called the “Adouma affair” after its principal defendant, which helpfully suggests the murky oil politics surrounding the speedy execution.

Ali Adouma was a former Deby advisor; both Adouma and the victim were from Darfur, in neighboring Sudan, whose conflict has spilled into Chad (pdf).

The Sudanese government had at times sought Adouma’s extradition for financing anti-govenrment Zaghawa forces across the border; while the Zaghawa ethnic minority (whose ranks include President Deby) dominates Chad, its Darfurian brethren have had the worst of their conflict with the Sudanese government.

So even if the convicts’ torture-adduced confessions resembled the truth of the murder, it can be safely inferred that the fact and the haste of their executions were matters of state. (Adouma’s confidence that there would not actually be an execution was reportedly shaken only in the last hours of his life.)

What matter of state is a different, uncertain matter: to calm potential foreign investors who’d be understandably nervous about seeing a petroleum kingpin pinched on the streets without consequence? A sop to Khartoum in Deby’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to limit the knock-on from Darfur to Chad? Or a warning to Deby’s own base? (pdf)

The vague attempts at conciliation by the Chadian President do not please his entourage which almost sees it as treason. Last May, 80 soldiers tried to overthrow Deby and would have assassinated him …

President Idriss Deby, according to observers with knowledge of Chadian politics, would be in a “precarious” situation. The Chad regime, undermined by corruption and ever on the brink of a chronic socio-economic crisis … may become even “tougher”. In N’Djamena, the hasty conviction and execution of Ali Adouma are seen as a sign from the President to his inner circle, even the ones in charge of the national economy, that he is ready to use coercion, even against his own clan.

These pictures of the execution were published in a Chadian paper. In image three, the circled figure is one of the firing squad members, who was himself bizarrely reported fatally shot during the execution. (Whispers continue to circulate that the unlucky executioner had in fact been intentionally eliminated after receiving some sensitive parting confidence from the well-placed condemned.)

“Chad,” said Interior Minister Routouang Yoma Golom, “has given a wonderful example to wrong-doers.”

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1730: Hans Hermann von Katte, Frederick the Great’s lover

7 comments November 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Prussia’s greatest king watched his boyhood lover put to death at his father’s order.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Most of those ways were explored at some point by a Hohenzollern.

The 18-year-old prince Frederick had a thoroughly frosty relationship with the old man. Surly Frederick William I — “the soldier king” — didn’t have much use for his sensitive, music-loving son. An “effeminate fool,” dad thought the boy, and did not scruple to beat him publicly as he forcibly molded the unwilling heir into a military man.

Now, blue bloods have often had rocky relationships with their sires, but running away is not the usual option for a prince of the realm.

But Frederick contrived to hit the bricks, and 26-year-old officer Hans Hermann von Katte had the bad luck to be his best friend (and presumed homosexual lover). When Frederick turned to him for help, they started plotting flight.

Both were apprehended and imprisoned, and Frederick was himself in some danger of being executed by command of his own father. Dad softened up enough to keep his son’s head attached to his shoulders.

Von Katte wasn’t so lucky: sentenced only to imprisonment, the verdict was upgraded by the vindictive monarch — and as part of Frederick William’s ongoing project to break his son, he made the kid watch his friend’s beheading from close enough proximity to beg (and receive) von Katte’s forgiveness.

Here’s a melodramatic interpretation from a short film called Der Tod des Hans Hermann von Katte:

Frederick spent the next decade under the father’s thumb, chafing but bending himself to the austere demands of Prussian statecraft.

Well did he absorb them, for upon succeeding in 1740, he far surpassed his father in the martial pursuits, and for the half-century span of his reign was Europe’s acknowledged battlefield master. Known to posterity as Frederich the Great — and more familiarly as der alte Fritz, “old Fritz” — his augmentation of the empire vaulted Prussia into Europe’s great powers club and set the stage for German unification.

Frederick scarcely ever spoke again of von Katte, but neither did he lose his native intelligence, and he kept up a long-running correspondence with Voltaire.

It gives an achingly tragic cast to the boy who suffered the horrible loss of his intimate this day — who dutifully delivered to his country genius as a commander and statesman, at the uncomplaining sacrifice of the life he yearned to lead.

UC-Berkeley professor Margaret Anderson’s wonderful “Rise and Fall of the Second Reich” course podcast situates Frederick in the arc of Prussia’s development out of the Middle Ages —

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— and treats his adroit foreign policy and active mind in the age of the Enlightenment.

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On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Homosexuals,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Power,Prussia,Scandal,Soldiers,Treason

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Kevin Sullivan: Hi Brad, That’s a good question, and I think his life might have turned out like this: First,...
  • Kevin Sullivan: Hi Jack! Thanks for the good words about my interview on the program. It was a fun shoot, and rather...
  • Jack Hatchett: Not a fan of John H. Browne. He says he doesn’t believe in the death penalty but would have torn...
  • Jack Hatchett: Very cool….if Liz has made herself available to consult on the movie maybe she will sit down for...
  • Jack Hatchett: Brad….Right you are!! The DaRonch portion of the show was definitely a “What....